The Soapbox: Student letting agencies, an unacknowledged problem

I’m writing this because I feel like I am part of a problem that is being fully ignored in Leeds and across the UK in general.

I’m a student in Leeds at the moment. I know us students probably don’t have the best reputation, but that’s really only the minority. Most of us are still teenagers who are trying to learn to stand on our own two feet. For most of us, we’ve never before had to understand the difference between variable and fixed rate energy prices, we’ve never had to know what the best Tog is for a new duvet, and we’ve never had to decipher overly complicated housing contracts. It’s a baptism of fire really: we sort of get thrown in the deep end, and eventually have to sink or swim. I am fine with this. I think that is part of growing up, but just as I am finally managing to stand on my own two feet there are certain companies out there trying to swipe my legs out from under me, all for the sake of an easy profit.

I’m talking about student letting companies. Companies that are designed purely to extract as much money from students as possible, knowing that they are an easy target. Rent prices I can deal with, over-priced for sure, but demand is high. Despite the fact that almost my entire loan goes on paying my rent, it’s motivation to get a job, to pay your own way. What I cannot deal with are extortionate charges applied left right and centre to the student tenants. Some agencies require £80 each for a “signing fee” which is nothing more than another way to squeeze your money out of you. Last year, when I was locked out of my house for several nights after losing my house key (the only key I have ever lost) my letting company wanted to charge £80 for a new key. Luckily I got one cut from a fellow housemate’s key myself, but other charges weren’t so easily avoided. A housemate was behind on their rent payment, and so the company sent us each a letter, informing us that our housemate hadn’t paid, and asking us for the price of £10 each. For that kind of price, I want my letter encrusted with diamonds. They later waived this fee after complaints, however, lo-and-behold at the end of the year there it was taken off our deposit.

Other things taken out of the deposit included stained mattresses (that were already like that when we moved into the property) for the price of £144. Cleaning charges for £120 when the house had been left spotless, literally cleaner than when we had moved in. Overall the total cost in deductions was £584. That would be enough to pay my energy bills for the entire year. Some of the charges were fair enough; one of the beds we had used for a full year had two broken slats. The cost to replace the two slats? £96. And probably the final kick in the teeth, is that most of the things they charge you for they do not actually do. Even the small charge of £5 for new light bulbs is frustrating when I can clearly remember having to replace the majority of light bulbs ourselves when we first moved into the property: they had nothing to do with it.

So where does our money – money that is the gap between having no money and being heavily in debt – go? It does not go into the property; it goes back to the estate agents.  And don’t think this is just a personal vendetta from an isolated case. I have heard hundreds of horror stories during my 2 years in Leeds. Many student letting agencies use the same tactics. Students still get ripped off with their deposits, despite the government’s attempts to help. It doesn’t just stop at deposits though. You get whizzed around by the estate agent, not knowing what questions to ask, or really what you should be looking for. Later you are heavily pressured into signing up on the spot on the threat that “if you leave it any longer they will all be gone”. Before you know it, you’ve signed and next July you’re in your new home. Then for some people, the problems start to show. I’ve had friends that have had toxic mould growing in their houses, to which neither the estate agents nor the landlord cared to sort out. Some of the houses I’ve seen would turn your stomach, some don’t even conform to the fire safety standards.

To contrast, last year I visited my friend in nearby York and was shocked when she explained how the student estate agents worked. There the estate agents choose which people they think are the most suitable for the property. There the estate agents respect what they do. In Leeds most student letting agents will bang you in the first house they possibly can, no matter the state of the tenants or the property as long as they see easy profit. They do this every year, to thousands of students, taking money of the people who are trying to become financially independent for the first time.

Saying that, we students are not entirely out of the blame. Our biggest mistake can be naivety. Don’t forget a lot of us are still kids in a lot of ways: if the company charges you it can feel like there is nothing you can do about it, they are the authority, and you are just an individual. We often just bitterly accept this abuse because we think it’s the way the world works. We get older and still find this kind of abuse acceptable. But should this be how the world works? I know that a lot of the problems I have mentioned are not exclusive only to students; there are daylight thieves in many walks of life no matter what your age. However, if you are reading this now, thinking that ‘this is just how the world works’, try and think that maybe if we didn’t stand for it the first time it happened we would actually be able to change it. We as students must try and educate ourselves against this type of problem.

We see it happen every year. Maybe we’re young. Maybe we’re not always blameless. But don’t forget most of us are nowhere near being full adults yet, despite our age. Some people think we live in an overly cynical world, but is it any wonder that in our first stages of becoming an adult, companies will take advantage of you for as much money as possible. It breeds a generation of untrusting, bitter and suspicious cynics. And the cycle goes on. I want to stop it. I want to stop feeling completely helpless and ignored. I want the problem to be acknowledged. And I don’t want to grow up to be a cynic.

If you made it this far, thank you for your time.

Author: Lee Bentham

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